Interview with Dr. Eric Verdin, President and CEO of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging. The Buck Institute was a pioneer in research on aging and is now a global leader in the field, becoming the world's largest research institution focusing solely on the biology of aging.
Eric, the mission of the Buck Institute is, and I quote “To end the threat of age-related diseases for this and future generations”. You and your unique team believe that it is possible for people to enjoy their lives at 95 as much as they did or they do at 25. How can we best achieve this goal?
Dr. Verdin: Yes, I am so delighted to be on this podcast with you. I think it would be the idea of really living healthy until 95 which is really the foundation of our work. We now have the evidence that we might be able to do this. The research during the last 20 years in animal models has shown that we can dramatically increase not only healthy life span but also the healthy years of life. So that's things that we can do today in the laboratory. We also have some evidence that some humans are able to actually live to an old age in really good shape. It turns out that we have a fraction of the population which is rapidly growing, the centenarians and the supercentenarians, many of them actually spent a much larger fraction of their lives healthy than the rest of the population. Most of the population will spend about 15 percent of their life carrying one or several chronic conditions, called the chronic diseases of aging and we can discuss this further. But it turns out centenarians not only do live longer, but also spend a much smaller fraction of their life, about 5-6 percent, afflicted with one disease. So the idea of healthy aging is definitely the focus of our work.
What is your own definition of aging? Why do we actually age?
Dr. Verdin: The way I think about aging is: picture in your head a 1940 pickup truck, which has been sitting in a yard, or the barn and not being taken care of. It is all rusty and it has lost its wheels, and is really damaged. So, this is an old truck about 79-years-old. Picture in your head, the same truck which has been in the hands of a collector who has very carefully maintained the truck, taken care of replacing every piece that gets old. These two trucks are the same age. They're both 79 but one of them is actually in pristine condition, the same condition as it was when it rolled off the assembly line. And the same goes for aging. We know that as time passes, our bodies are constantly being rejuvenated and maintained. Our skin turns over every 20 days and bone turns over every 10 years. We are constantly being repaired and remade anew. And the thinking is that the aging process is a reflection of the fact that these maintenance and repair systems are not perfect. So, every time your cells are dividing, they make a few mistakes and the accumulation of these mistakes and this damage over time is what constitutes aging. What this also means is that if we want to delay aging, we have to understand what these repair and maintenance systems are, and hopefully increase their efficiency or activate them. And this is really the focus of our work.
Photo credit: The Buck Institute
We think today that probably 93 percent of your health span and life expectancy is determined by your lifestyle choices. Two of the major ones are exercise and nutrition.
Healthy longevity - how to live healthy longer. Is this a focus of your work?
Dr. Verdin: Yes, absolutely. There has been some confusion about what the aging field is. Some have claimed that we're going to dramatically increase life span, that people are going to live to 500-years-old or to 1,000- years-old. I think this is not in the discussion of what I would call the serious people in the field at this point, while we cannot exclude that life span will continue to increase in the future, as it has during the last hundred years. Our focus right now is really in creating circumstances and interventions, drugs and advice for people to maximize the quality of the life that they have today. And today, life expectancy is about 80-years -old. It turns out that for most people, the last 15 years of their life from 65 to 80 they do carry a chronic condition, such as diabetes, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, heart attack, stroke, cancer, Alzheimer's disease, neurodegeneration, Parkinson’s, macular degeneration, and so on. All of these diseases are what we call the chronic diseases of aging, and they impose a heavy burden on what we think about aging. We have some evidence in our experimental models that we can change this, that we can compress the morbidity of sickness, and increase the healthy years of life.
What do you consider as the biggest breakthrough technology or research in longevity and geroscience?
Dr. Verdin: About 30 years ago, a number of key observations were made in a simple model system on simple animals that we are studying in the laboratory. Until then, aging was considered something that was completely nonspecific that you could not modify and then, you could not study. And what happened 30 years ago is some colleagues and scientists discovered mutations that actually increase life span and health span. And this really opened up what I call the floodgate of aging research because people realize if you can identify a mutation that increases life span, that means you can probably identify a drug that does the same thing or another intervention. And I think we just want to make sure also that your listeners understand we are not exclusively focusing on drugs, we actually are interested in nondrug interventions and trying to see what is it that allows someone to live healthy, live better, longer and healthier.
There’s more and more research confirming that approximately 10 percent or less of the variation in human longevity is due to genetic factors. This means that the 90 percent, or even more, is up to the environment we’re living in, up to life choices, up to our diet. Do I understand that the Buck Institute is also focusing on the impact of health preservation, health prevention and lifestyle alteration?
Dr. Verdin: Absolutely, actually, it is one of the major areas in which we are working obviously. And as you said correctly, we think that today that probably 93 percent of your health span and life expectancy is determined by your lifestyle choices. This is actually the best news because it means that if we can modify these lifestyle choices, we will increase longevity for people. Two of the major ones are exercise and nutrition. And exercise is really the global, the best antiaging medicine that we have today. The data shows that even a small amount of exercise, such as walking 20 minutes a day, is already a lot better than not doing anything. And the data also shows that it's never too late. That is even if you've never exercised in your life, and you start exercising at 60, walking 20 minutes a day, you are going to get a very significant benefit in terms of health. So now one of the key questions is, “How does this happen? What is it about exercise that actually has this dramatic protective effect?” This is the focus of our work really trying to analyze and decide which genes are activated. What are the mechanisms that exercise activates that lead to this incredible beneficial effect? The same goes for nutrition, you know, everyone needs to eat. There's been somewhat of a breakdown in some parts of the Western world in terms of what people are eating. We need to reevaluate what is the basis of a healthy diet, and so there’s a lot of research and a lot of interest in trying to understand how many meals a day should you eat? What should you eat? Should you eat carbohydrates, fats? There's a lot of noise in the literature and in the press about a low-fat diet and low-carb diet - a lot of confusion also for the public. The focus of our work is really trying to understand what are the main pillars of a healthy diet and how does a good diet work at making you healthy?
It seems that the Buck Institute is also very much involved in health education and also in social campaigning of what is actually good and bad in terms of aging and preventive healthcare. Can you give us some examples of how your institute is engaging in education and some of these social campaigns?
Dr. Verdin: Yes. Make the point how important this aspect is because there's already a lot of very good information that is circulated that is known. For example, we know that smoking is really one of the worst things that you can do for your health, which will shorten your life span by 10 years. But this fight we still have, depending on where you live in the world, between 10 and 25, or 30 percent of the population is smoking. So to me, it is really one of the major challenges because we can make amazing discoveries and tell you, what you should be eating. The fact that so many people are smoking when we know the deleterious effect is a dramatic failure of our field. So there's a lot of thinking going on at the Buck and trying to understand not only how do we make the discoveries but tell people what they should be doing or advise them on what the best directions are. How do you actually implement these changes so that people embrace them and incorporate them into their lives? In the case of smoking, we know there's a huge addiction effect. So obviously, it's an easy one. But the same goes for diet. A lot of people today know what they should be avoiding and not avoiding if any of them chose to do so. I think the Buck in the future will develop programs that will be focused on understanding the basis of human motivation. Understanding also the most efficient way that public health campaigns can be directed at changing health behaviour.
This is so interesting, and I have to ask you, what are the healthy habits that you have introduced personally into your life?
Dr. Verdin: Well, I really focus on three, which are exercise, so I'm an avid exerciser. Actually, we live here in Marin County in Northern California. Mountain Biking was invented here. That is both a joy but so often something that I know clearly makes me healthy. Another one is nutrition. I think there is, as I mentioned earlier, a lot of interest in trying to understand what it is about eating that makes us healthy or not healthy. We know that excessive eating is clearly deleterious to your health. And the evidence also shows that restriction in any food you are eating, not so much in eating less globally, but allowing some periods of fasting for example, in your daily routine, is important. One thing that I practice personally is something called time-restricted feeding, which is the idea that you only allow yourself to eat during your fixed period of the day, and in my case, it is eight to nine hours. That means I try to be fasting for at least 15 to 16 hours every day. And that allows me to eat whatever I want during the remaining hours. This is a really exciting development because it turns out that just making this simple modification allows people to improve their health. There is clear evidence coming from several laboratories showing that this has a really profound effect. And the last one for me is without going too much into the details, is sleeping. We live in an amazing era, where we are bombarded by information by screens such as TV, your iPhone, your iPad, and so on. There's growing evidence that artificial lights, especially in the forms of screens at night, can be profoundly disruptive to your sleep. So I try to sleep seven hours a day which for most people is the amount that they need. Some people need less than average, people certainly need seven hours. And I try to minimize the disruption to the quality of sleep by minimizing screens for a couple of hours before going to bed, also trying to eat not too late, which can be a problem that disrupts your sleep as well. For me, these are the three main strikes.
I am glad that you mentioned sleeping because currently, we are very much focusing on the importance of sleep but also how sleep influences your resilience to stress in daily life. Coming back to the Buck Institute, your institute has succeeded in bringing together the world’s top scientists in the field of aging, working together in this most magnificent place, which is one of the most impressive research institutes in the world. What makes Buck such a unique place?
Dr. Verdin: Yes, we have a beautiful I. M. Pei designed building. I call it a temple of science. It is just a glorious building with a very full understanding of the power of architecture on our daily lives. I think there's not a day that I come to work that I don't feel this is really an incredible gift that I. M. Pei has made to all of us.
So what makes the Buck unique? I think I should emphasize that we obviously are not the only ones studying the aging process. There are aging centers all across the U.S. and some in Europe as well. What really makes the Buck unique is the fact that it is the first in history. We were the first ones to really build a large center built on research on aging. And it is also the fact that we are all together in one building. We have close to 25 faculty members now, all interested in one topic and all looking at aging from different perspectives. I think this has created a really unique collaborative environment where aging is our focus, but people are looking at it and studying it from very different perspectives. That allows what I call a true multidisciplinary effort, really targeting something that is a huge problem. This is not only the collaboration that creates efficiency and the way we adjust to aging but also creates a wonderful community of scientists that are all working together towards one goal. And I think this is a little bit different from the traditional model where competition is usually the primary driver. In this case, collaboration and cooperation is really a model system for the Buck. And it has paid incredible dividends for us. I think that we have made really incredible strides in multiple areas and I think we will continue to grow and maintain our leadership in the field.
Photo credit: The Buck Institute
We are constantly being repaired and remade anew and these maintenance and repair systems are not perfect. Every time your cells are dividing, they make a few mistakes and the accumulation of these mistakes and this damage over time is what constitutes aging.
I have to say that it is a really amazing atmosphere when you enter your building, you can feel the energy and inspirational focus there. What are the opportunities for international research institutes and also investors and private companies to collaborate with the Buck Institute?
Dr. Verdin: There are many. We have multiple collaboration across the world. One of the things that is really happening in the aging space right now is after about 20 years of study of the basic biology of aging, we are entering a new phase, which is a phase in which we are trying to translate all of these discoveries. It is great to increase life span and health span in mice or rats or other animal species, but everyone is interested in what is going to happen in humans. A lot of our focus right now is on what we call translation. And that is essentially taking these basic discoveries and trying to apply them to humans. Typically, the model in which this is done is in the form of start-ups and biotech companies and the Buck has been a leader in this respect. We have created more than six different companies in the last 10 years and some of these companies actually are encountering quite significant success. We think that's a model that's going to continue to expand, and obviously, this type of effort requires investors and partners. We have been lucky enough to partner with a number of key players in the field and we expect this to continue to expand in the future.
Could you recommend some of the books on healthy longevity and health preservation that inspired you recently?
Dr. Verdin: Yes, I will tell you the one I am reading right now, which I find absolutely fascinating. It is called “The Personalized Diet”. It was written by a couple of Israeli scientists. Their names are Eran Segal and Eran Elinav and they are really a part of this new wave of nutrition research trying to understand what is it about our diet that can be healthy and unhealthy. And what they show in this diet book which is actually quite remarkable is the fact that right now we have nutrition guidelines that are applied across the whole population. So you will not be told you should be eating white bread, but you should be eating, for example, dark bread with whole wheat bread. And that's the dogma and everyone who is health conscious will try to only focus on eating whole grain bread. What they were able to do was to measure your response by measuring your blood sugar in response to every food, and what they found was that there are no rules. Everything is individual in that some people responded to white bread in a much more healthy way then they responded to dark breads. And I think it is really an example of something that is going to change in the future is this idea that nutrition guidelines are probably flawed in most cases, because we all respond to food in very different manners. And I find this fascinating. It has really triggered me to start thinking of what else can be individualized. This is a whole movement also in medicine. The school of so-called precision medicine or personalized medicine is this idea that as individuals we are quite different from each other in how we respond to different, for example, nutrition or diet. But I suspect the same goes in terms of exercise. Much of the research done in the lab is focused on animals that are all identical. Therefore, we lose that incredible variety of genetic variation they would have being humans, I think this is going to have to be one of our focused areas in the future. I just love reading the book and I suspect your listeners will too.
Thank you very much. This is a great recommendation.